Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Contractor Life - Pt 3: Toward Success


This is the third piece looking at life as a contractor, when that isn't your
first choice of gig. The first part is here. The second can be found here.
Please continue with me on this journey,

Toward Success

Trying to define "success" for anyone other than yourself is nearly as pointless as trying to find what "motivates" another person. Both, no matter what you may have learned in school or heard  from famous and infamous pundits. Both are internal. Both could be absolutely true for one person and absolutely false for another.

No single person can define what success looks like for another. No single person can define what might motivate another. The challenge is finding and defining what success looks like for us. We ourselves can figure out what motivates us.

The myriad ideas around "success" shift and change over time. For many, in the end, the idea of success is to be happy, or at the least, content. If we have a "job" with a title and a large paycheck, oftentimes those are bestowed on us. This means they can be taken from us. 

I cannot tell you what success looks like, for you. I can tell you how I view success. Maybe that will help you in your thinking about success.

I cannot tell you what success looks like, for you. I can tell you how I view success. Maybe that will help you in your thinking about success. It doesn’t matter if it is as a “contractor” or “consultant” or an “employee.”


Know why you are there. 

If there are obvious problem areas it is tempting to jump in and say "Let's fix this!" I might gently suggest not doing that. Gerry Weinberg in The Secrets of Consulting warned against "imposing help." It doesn't matter the situation. If they are not ready to ask for help to change, or fix, a problem, then let it be. 

No matter how many areas where there are improvements that can be made, focus on the reason why you were brought in. Understand the rules in place and how people work. Understand the problems they face and recognize it is possible there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why they are doing something in a way you find suboptimal. Learn the energy and observe.

Oh, and do what your contract says to do. If that is "write code" then by all means write code. If that says "test code" then test the code. This becomes the biggest challenge and the largest responsibility area for you. 

I've seen several people come in and suggest things that might help an organization. Yet those things were not part of why they were brought in. Don't fall into the trap of "this is more important" than the testing or development work. It may be more fun for you, but until you are asked to propose changes to those other things, don't. 

Do what your contract says. Do it to the best of your ability. Demonstrate success and let them see what you can do. When the contract manager or their boss express frustration with a situation, ask if they would like help with that. 

Until you are directed otherwise, your primary task and purpose is what your contract says. This should always be remembered.

Know when you are there.

Doing what we do, most of us are salaried employees. There is an expectation we will "get the job done. " If there is any chance we cannot deliver the work because of problems we encounter, we need to communicate that clearly and let our team and management know we are having problems. 

If the problem is "there isn't enough time to do this" the response is usually something like "It needs to get done on time."

In my youth, I had no issues working massive hours of overtime to "get the job done" and "deliver" what was needed when it was needed. I remember one position where for a three month stretch where I was working an average of 70 to 80 hours a week. I no longer recommend that.

When you are salaried and you hit "crunch mode" then most shops expect something like an "all out effort." While three months is a crazy long time, when you are working under contract, the rules are different.

If the "expectations" are not different, check the terms of the contract.

Contract Terms

In your contract there will be some very specific things. There will be rules for you to follow and adhere to. (Many of these likely resulted from stories that might best be related over beverages after hours.) There will be expectations listed:

  • dress professionally; 
  • show up on time; 
  • show up;
  • don't bring illegal things to work;
  • don't bring some things that are legal to work;
  • don't be a jerk.

There will be an outline of what work is to be done. This may be fairly exact, or it may be broadly phrased. Any discussions had before the offer being extended would likely have given a clue what the terms meant.

There also will be a rate to be paid in exchange for that work.

Much of the time, this will be presented as an hourly rate and how to report time and file an invoice for the time. Usually, there will be a fairly explicit instruction that the work is to be 40 hours (or some other number) per week.

There it is. The magic limit. This is usually the most you can report and invoice for in a single week.If you work more than 40 hours can you report and invoice for it? Maybe. It depends on the terms of the contract. I have usually seen a requirement that anything over 40 hours needs prior approval from the client.

And there's the rule. That right there. If you are not approved to work over that limit, don't. 

Why not?

Money Stuff

You are being paid a specific rate per hour for doing specific work. Working more than the contracted time per week (normally 40 hours in the US) that might be OK. If you can invoice for them. If you cannot get paid for doing the work, don't. Explain it to the people who want more time - gently. 

Sometimes, often, any work done OVER 40 hours a week is at a higher rate. If hours 1 through 40 pays you at, say, $40 an hour. Hour 41 and over might well be something like $50 an hour. 

The placement firm you are contracted through likely also sees a bump in rate. If you get paid $40 an hour, normally, they are likely billing the client $60 or $70 an hour (or more.) That is, after all, how they make money from getting you the gig. It also may cover "their portion"of the benefit costs if you selected any benefits.

For them, you working any overtime means they get more money, too. Your $50 an hour for work over 40 hours a week might result in them billing $80 or $100 an hour. If you work 5 hours of "overtime" and report it and invoice for it, that will cost the client perhaps $500 in this example. Likely more.

Most of the contracts I have worked, there was a clause that no overtime would be paid if not agreed to "in advance" by both parties. The "in advance" part is a little grey, if not murky. In short, you can't bill them for extra time worked if they don't agree to pay you before you work it.

Most clients are thrilled to have people work "extra." They just don't want to "pay extra" for it. Short version - if it takes more time to get the work done than is contracted for, make sure the client will pay the invoice. If they are not willing to pay the invoice, don't work it. When you hit 40 hours for the week, shutdown. 

Doing "extra" for them might help them in the short term. It certainly does not help you. It also does not help the agency you are contracted through.

You owe it to yourself to make sure you get paid for every hour worked.

But, what about "professional responsibility?" Excellent question. That will be covered in the fourth part of this journey.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Contractor Life - Pt 2: Contractor or Consultant?

This is the second piece looking at life as a contractor, when that
isn't your first choice of gig. The first part is here.
Please continue with me on this journey,

Contractor or Consultant?

Loads of people work as contractors and really like it. They like it a lot. Most of these chose to become a contractor at some point. Some have become full time employees of contracting firms. Of course, many of those firms prefer to be described as "consulting services." Whatever. There is a difference. I won't go on a rant about it here. Maybe later.

Having said that, part of the reason companies bring in contractors for software work is simple. They can be brought in for a specific purpose or task. They do the task. Then they go away - with money in their pocket.

They (well, me included when working on a contract assignment, so "We") are software mercenaries. Most folks don't like that description. I prefer "privateer." We get hired to do a specific task. We do it. We leave and go to the next engagement. Sometimes they want us to stay and do another specific task. Then the contract might get renegotiated. Or not. 

Contractor? Consultant?

There is one thing I have not said about contractors, software mercenaries or privateers. If my contract is for a specific task - that is the task I do. I am not acting as a consultant. My primary purpose there is not to help them improve and make their world better. 

Sometimes, if the contract is to be a ScrumMaster or "Agile Facilitator," that means my purpose is to act as a ScrumMaster and teach the team, or teams, about things "Agile" - or at least, Scrum. These contracts might be of a short duration, or fairly lengthy. They might get renewed - or not. Still, the fact remains - when the task is done, in this case, the teams are up and running and able to be self-sufficient so they don't NEED a ScrumMaster, I leave.

I tell teams I'm a bit like Nanny McPhee - "When you need me, you don't want me. When you want me, you don't need me." That is still a contract, although it does trend a bit to "consultant." 

The difference is often rather mechanical. 


What does that mean? 

An organization brings in someone for a specific purpose. For example, a person is on medical leave for a few months and the company needs someone to do the basic day-to-day tasks of the job so the wheels keep turning. That is a pretty typical temporary "contract" position. Fixed period and very specific scope.

Another company is getting bogged down in a software project and needs help getting it written and tested so it can be delivered on time. Maybe the same company needs a new automation framework to be developed to be able to more efficiently conduct testing for the same project. These are both typical "contract" scenarios. You have a set purpose, mission and expected end date. 

The example from earlier, working as a ScrumMaster to get a team up and running within a Scrum framework. The task is to get the team to be working as a self-organized team, executing and delivering in a period of time. If they are reasonably well functioning to begin with, this can be very successful. If they are well functioning, this task will likely be impossible in a 6 or even 12 month time period. (This is one of the challenges using a fixed-date contract for a role like this.)

The contracts for these positions will usually define specific skills and abilities for the person filling the role, as well as expectations of what is needed. These will get circulated with various firms who will scramble to fill the roles - often presenting a slew of candidates in a short period of time.

Will there be challenges? Sure. Of course there will. Automation frameworks need to be weighed and balanced between several factors. Then designing the framework, and so forth. Completing these tasks takes a fair amount of effort and can sometimes be a challenge. In the end, however, the framework is fully functional and people from the client company can use it without considering how the framework was built. 

In each of these, the important thing to the client is not that they understand how the thing was done, but that it was done. Because it was done, they can carry on with what they need to do. 

It is likely you have encountered this before and have had contractors do work for you. Maybe not the huge, massive work like building custom designed house. More likely, bringing your car to an automotive garage for repairs or maintenance. Calling a plumber or electrician to fix a problem in your home is the same arrangement.

They are doing work for you - a specific task. They contracted to repair your vehicle or your plumbing for a given rate, normally within a given time frame. It is very mechanical.

But Consulting?

I know a fair number of people who do contract work and brand themselves as "Contracting Consultants." The challenge is, that is inaccurate for most of them. I know. People will point at specific things and say "See? I'm a consultant! Not a mere contractor!" Fine. Sure. One can use nearly any word imaginable to describe themselves. 

When a consultant is brought in, the problems which need to be addressed are more open-ended and less well defined. There is a change needed, but what that change might be is often a vague idea in the minds of the client. It also might be completely inappropriate for what they say they want to address or achieve. 

How is that different from contract work? I look at it like this.

A contractor will fix your car for you. A consultant will teach you about modes of transportation, find some that are most appropriate for your needs and then guide your decision making. They may also teach you how to repair your car yourself so you don't need to bring them in for automotive problems again. 

They will help you become capable of determining what needs to be done then doing the work yourself.

A good consultant will lay the groundwork for future work, by satisfying their client's needs in a way that the client will turn to them for guidance and help in areas other than what they are brought in to address.

A contractor will help you "transition" your team to some form of "Agile" as you believe it is needed. A consultant will have the hard conversations looking at why you want to “do Agile.” They will help you determine if there is a reason to "do Agile" other than that is what everyone else is doing.

A charlatan is someone who comes in with a prepackaged solution branded with their company logo to fix your problems without knowing what those problems are. They excel at selling clients a bill of goods. All the while, they will tell you that this “solution” is right for you and they can help you implement it and get all the awesome goodness of “Agile.”

Friday, September 18, 2020

Contractor Life - Part 1

The world of working in software changed with the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic. Loads of people were "made redundant" or "laid-off" or simply fired. Many are having a hard time getting in with their "ideal" gig. Some, some of them being people I know, have simply given up and are doing other things "for now." This post marks the first of a series of posts on my experience working as a contractor - not a consultant. There are similarities but they are decided not the same thing. I will address the differences an up-coming post.

Full Time Employee to Contract: The Beginning

The last six weeks or so, I've had conversations with several former colleagues. These were people I worked with some time ago. A couple were recent, more were several engagements and a few jobs ago. All had been "let go" recently, either the result of the COVID-19 economic downturn, or some organizational restructuring or some other reason. I asked each of them the same basic question...

What kind of gig are you looking for?

They gave answers that could be summed up as "Just like the last one I had." This seemed reasonable, given they had been in their respective roles for some time. It was where they felt comfortable. Each of them added one more thing - the same thing: "I'm not interested in contract work. I want to be a full time employee."

I asked why that was such a hard requirement. The answers could be summed up in a few points.

1. Stability
Each wanted to have some sense of stability in their position. Some had left their last role after a couple of years. A couple had been with their company for 5 to 7 years. One had been there 14 years. "Stability" has a level of attraction which makes sense.

2. Medical Insurance/Benefits
For folks in the US, this is huge. The certainty of quality health care is a massive attraction in a society where most people's health care insurance is provided, or significantly underwritten, by their employer. This might not make much sense to people outside the US, but the simple fact is, for many Americans, if they lose their job they also lose their medical and health coverage. It might not be immediate. It might be a couple of weeks or a month. But sometime soon, those will end.

3. Sense of Belonging
This is the easiest one for everyone to understand. Most people, in my experience, want to believe, or feel, they are part of something bigger than them and bigger than a paycheck. The feeling of being an "outsider" can be hard, particularly in a society where mobility has transported family connections across the continent or the globe. When your identity gets defined by what you do and where you do it, when that ends, what now is your sense of identity?

These are all reasonable expectations. At least, they would have been reasonable 20 years ago. The might have been reasonable 10 years ago. For the situation we are in now? I'm not sure how reasonable it is.

Why Do I Think That?

Over the last 15 or 20 years, I've seen a shift in practices for a fair number of companies. Typically, they had "just enough" software folks to do what they needed to do. They would be able to make tweaks to the existing systems and modifications to what was going on. There was a time when building a website or mobile app would generate a fair amount of excitement among the software folks working there.

Before then moving away from a mainframe and shifting to a client/server environment generated a fair amount of excitement. I remember one place I worked where folks were excited about the shift to the "new language" of COBOL. They were shifting from PL/1. 

Excitement isn't enough to make things happen, unfortunately. Whatever illusions I had about working in software at a single company for my entire career ended long ago. (To be precise, 1985.) I knew I would never work for a company where I'd be presented a gold watch as my grandfather was when he retired. 

For some people, working at a single company for most, if  not their entire career, is normal and wonderful. It is very comfortable. And then it becomes not comfortable.

Stability is a Myth

If you are in the States, and live and work in an "at will" State, I suspect you have less safety and security than you think you do. You can be let go at any time, with or without a reason. Sure, you can collect unemployment for a while, but that is often far, far less than you might think, if you have never been on unemployment before. 

If you, like some of my colleagues, were "let go" because of the downturn from the pandemic, you likely have come to the same realization. Companies will do what they need to do for themselves or their stockholders. A shock to the financial statements might be one thing. There might be warning signs. There might not.

Medical Insurance

In the US, if you are the primary source of insurance coverage for you and your family, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) can help, maybe. You'll need to find some form of insurance to at least cover you for a while, until you "get back on your feet." 

The first time I took on a contract role, I went in well aware of the challenges. I was working as a straight C2C/1099/Self-employed contract person. I was responsible for buying my own health insurance, paying estimated taxes quarterly and paying "full book" for taxes where normally the employer pays half and the employee pays half. It was complex and a challenge in a lot of ways.

Unlike many today, I went into that well aware of what I was getting into and it was my choice.

Things Have Changed

Loads of companies, by no means all, are no longer willing to bring on "independents." They want someone "affiliated" with a company they trust, have worked with before, or at the very least, have heard of.

The result is many ads are being posted for positions by those firms (placement, contract, whatever) to meet their client needs and expectations. These come in several shapes, sizes and flavors. I'll talk about them in a bit.

The biggest change, and most consistent, is how you are working. Instead of being an employee of the client, you may likely be a temporary employee of the firm that placed the notice. The "temporary" part means you are an employee for the duration of the contract. The employee part is they will handle payroll tax withholding. They may also offer some form of benefit package you can choose to participate in.

If you DO choose to participate in the benefits, it may (and almost certainly will) limit what your billable rate will be. Ask. Ask what the costs are to participate in their "benefit program." Then compare that program with what you can find on the market. Your best bet might be to take their program, or it might be something on the open market.

What about stability and job security? Excellent question. There are a couple of ideas in my head around that idea. First, contracts have a fixed duration. They might be 3, 6, maybe months or longer. Usually they can be extended or renewed. 

Much of the time, there are clauses that allows them to cancel the contract. Most of the time, they can cancel at any time for any reason.

If you work in an "at will" state as an employee, this is exactly the same thing that can happen to you. You can be "let go" at any time for any reason. The difference in these two, is an employee may be able to file a claim for unemployment support, depending on things like what state the employee lives in and what reason, if any, the employer gives for you being let go.

Belonging and Community

This is a huge challenge. It will continue to be a challenge no matter if you are an "employee" at a company or a contract worker doing work FOR a company. Many, perhaps most, companies that make software have people working "remote" because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This trend will continue for some time, I suspect. (Last I heard, Uber software folks are not expecting to return to their offices until June of 2021 - at the earliest.)

When you are physically distant, as well as not really being part of the club, there are challenges in keeping and maintaining that sense of purpose and team.

Virtual meetings and "happy hours" don't relieve the strain and in some ways make it harder. These are part of what I see as a response to the pandemic-forced remote work - and not unique to contract employees.

In short, no one has a strong sense of belonging unless they make it for themselves.

Moving to Contracting

There is one consideration I have not mentioned. For a lot of people, even if there was some form of severance package, that money won't last for ever. Unemployment benefits vary by State. It almost never comes close to what your pay was before "the change in circumstance."

The adage about how it is better to be employed and looking than to not be employed and looking still holds true. I'd like to think folks are compassionate these days, considering the number of extremely talented people who find themselves "available" when they did not plan on it - like some of you reading this. 

Taking on a contract of 3 or 6 months might not be what you WANT to do. Still, it will bring money in - and give you a sense of purpose. You also have the sense of being able to provide for you and possibly your family. Loads of people have been talking about their "extra time" since March. I'm not one of those folks. I was busy before COVID - and have been even more busy since mid-March. 

There are some good and bad points to working by contract. There are also some things to remember as you look for the next opportunity. These can help you be successful and thrive while doing contract work - because it is DIFFERENT than when you are an employee. 

These differences are not all one way. Some are good. Some are less-good. I'll look at some of these in the next installment.